The election campaign has taken off at a dizzying pace: new parties, splits and bolts. Within this political drama, the ultra-Orthodox parties are usually considered an island of stability. But over the past few days, this has been revealed as an optical illusion. Haaretz has learned that a group within Agudath Israel, the Hasidic faction in United Torah Judaism, is expected to launch a rebellion against its leadership – the Ger Hasidim, represented by Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman.
Two members of the rebel group preparing this unprecedented struggle for control of the party apparatus are Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush and MK Israel Eichler. A number of sources in UTJ said Porush and Eichler are poised to establish autonomy within the party and challenge Litzman, the faction’s strongman. “After more than two decades, Litzman’s rule has ended,” a source said.
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Porush and Eichler are expected to send a letter to the non-Hasidic branch of UTJ Degel Hatorah, declaring that from now on, any negotiations between the two branches would no longer go through Litzman.
Beyond the far-reaching significance of the move for internal ultra-Orthodox politics, it is also expected to impact the race between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former senior Likud member Gideon Sa’ar. Porush and Eichler are expected to send a letter to Netanyahu with the same message – Litzman no longer represents the entire branch.
When Netanyahu negotiates with Litzman, and the leader of UTJ’s non-Hasidic branch, Degel Hatorah, MK Moshe Gafni and he makes “a list of who’s with him and who’s not, he’ll have to take into account that two votes in UTJ are already no longer in his pocket, and that’s that,” a source close to the Eichler-Porush axis said.
“If he wants something he’ll have to close it with them directly, because they don’t owe him anything,” the source said.
Haaretz has learned that approaches have been made to some of Netanyahu’s people but they have not been fruitful.
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“Up until now, Netanyahu’s people didn’t take them seriously, the source said, referring to Eichler and Porush, “but now things are changing.”
A source in the party told Haaretz that there was a political maneuver to reach a better place on the party roster and control over the party institutions, and that it would have no effect on the party, nor on a contest between Netanyahu and Sa’ar.
“The declaration of independence isn’t meant to impact the conduct of the party. It’s not that Porush has so far conducted himself according to Litzman’s dictums. The party has institutions and management that in the end make decisions that everyone is bound to,” the source said.
The Porush-Eichler axis began to form over the past year on a number of issues, but the official moment was about a month ago, when the two of them had a long meeting at the home of the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, Eichler’s patron, who has backed the move. According to a source in the party, Porush managed to obtain the support of a number of the party’s rabbinical leaders.
Over the past few days Porush and Eichler have presented the Ger Hasidim with three main demands before the election campaign starts: the establishment of a finance committee their representatives would join, instead of the current situation in which the Ger Hasidic representatives are solely in charge of financial management; bringing representatives of other communities onto the party roster instead of another Ger Hasid; and advancing a Belz Hasid over another representative of the Vizhnitz Hasidim.
Historically, the Ger Hasidic sect has controlled Agudath Israel, and since the late 1990s, has been represented by Litzman. Porush represents another group, Shlomei Emunim, which represents a number of other communities and Hasidic groups, which was led before him by his father, Menachem Porush.
Both Porushes have had a long-running feud with the Ger Hasids, mainly since the latter supported Nir Barkat, a Likud MK, for mayor of Jerusalem when he ran against Porush some years ago. “There are two struggles crossing each other. One is Porush versus Litzman, with their long history, and the other is Eichler, representing Belz, versus MK Yaakov Tesler, representing the Vizhnitz Hasidim,” a party source said.
In Eichler’s favor is the fact that Belz is a larger community than Vizhnitz and therefore its representative should be higher on the Knesset roster than Vizhnitz’s. Until recently, the slot on the list was a non-issue, because the balance of power in UTJ was 40:60 in favor of the Hasidic Agudath Israel. There was a slot for a Belz member as well.
But about two years ago things changed. The non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah proved stronger in municipal elections than the Hasidic branch and demanded that this be recognized on the Knesset roster as well. Litzman gave in without an argument and signed an agreement that divided the roster equally between Hasidic and non-Hasidic candidates, which pushed Belz down the list. Porush has received backing from within the Ger Hasidic members of UTJ who oppose Litzman, a party source said.
Degel Hatorah is also going through challenging times amid rumors of the possible retirement of its chairman, Moshe Gafni, partly for health reasons. “The leader of the party behind the scenes doesn’t want Gafni to leave because he realizes a war of succession that will start that will be cruel and hurt the party,” a source said. “Faction members are sharpening their knives for the day after Gafni. It won’t be pretty.”